Podcast 341 – The Captain’s Well

In 1792, Valentine Bagley and his ship’s crew were marooned in the deserts of Arabia. He swore if he survived he’d go home and dig a well in Amesbury, Massachusetts.

In Episode 341 Jeff Belanger and Ray Auger grab a drink at the Captain’s Well in Amesbury, Massachusetts. In 1792, future Captain Valentine Bagley was marooned in a desolate part of Arabia. Out of his ship’s crew of 25, only eight survived the ordeal. Bagley swore to God if he should live, he would go home and dig a well for all so no one will suffer thirst like he did.

Read the episode transcript.


Produced and hosted by: Jeff Belanger and Ray Auger
Edited by: Ray Auger
Theme Music by: John Judd

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The Captain's Well today on Main Street in Amesbury, Massachusetts.

The Captain’s Well today on Main Street in Amesbury, Massachusetts.

The Captain's Well postcard circa 1910.

The Captain’s Well postcard circa 1910.

*A note on the text: Please forgive punctuation, spelling, and grammar mistakes. Like us, the transcripts ain’t perfect.

RAY: It’s a nice early Spring day for a stroll here on Main Street in Amesbury, Massachusetts.
JEFF: It is indeed.
RAY: We parked kind of far away, I’m getting parched. Think we could stop somewhere for a drink?
JEFF: We can! We’re almost there, too. Our destination is right up there on the left.
RAY: We’re walking next to Amesbury Middle School right now.
JEFF: Right. Where we’re headed is that little patio-looking area over there.
RAY: I see a short stone wall maybe 15 feet back from the sidewalk. It’s a small area, and there’s some kind of monument there in the back.
JEFF: Ray, this is our destination. A public water fountain that’s been here in some form since 1796. It was dug and given freely as a gift from someone who nearly died of thirst. We’re in Amesbury to check out… The Captain’s Well.
JEFF: I’m Jeff Belanger.
RAY: And I’m Ray Auger. Welcome to Episode 341 of the New England Legends podcast. Thanks for joining us on our mission to chronicle every legend in New England one story at a time. Whether it’s road-side oddities, haunts, monsters, aliens, or the just plain weird, we want to know about it. Did you know most of our story leads come from you? This one did. Thanks to Robert for tipping us off. If you’ve got a strange story you think we should check out, contact us anytime through our Web site.
JEFF: We’ll dig for the roots of the Captain’s Well right after this word from our sponsor.
RAY: This isn’t the first public water well we’ve looked into, Jeff.
JEFF: That’s true! Back in Episode 325 we checked out the legendary fountain of Providence, Rhode Island.
RAY: I guess people have different reasons for putting up a free public water source.
JEFF: They do, and all of them are noble reasons in their own right. I’m a fan of anytime people try to help out others, even strangers.
RAY: It says a lot about a person’s character.
JEFF: So this well has been here for more than two centuries. Since it was first dug by Captain Valentine Bagley, its legend has only grown. But the story got a huge shot in the arm when it was immortalized in poem by John Greenleaf Whittier.
RAY: Man, Whittier has covered some great legends in his poems over the years.
JEFF: He has. To find out how this well got here on Main Street in Amesbury, let’s head back to the year 1792.
RAY: It’s July of 1792 and we’re sailing aboard a ship called The Commerce of Boston in the Red Sea. The waters are rough and the winds are high, and we’re getting dangerously close to the rocky shores of Arabia near Cape Morebet.
JEFF: The crew is fighting the seas and wind as best they can, but they can only do so much. For the 19-year-old Captain’s Mate, Valentine Bagley, this is the worst he’s seen. He’s scared.
JEFF/RAY: Ohhh no!
RAY: The Commerce of Boston has just hit the rocks hard! That didn’t sound good.
JEFF: (AWAY FROM MIC) I’m looking over the bow. (PAUSE) This ship is done for! It’s wrecked and broken up pretty bad.
RAY: I think we need to stay put until this storm clears. We’re beached enough that we’re not going to sink.
RAY: By the time the storm passes, the 25 crew members take the long boats and all of the supplies they can manage to shore.
JEFF: This is a desolate area. I don’t see much but sand and rocky hills for miles around. The crew makes a camp near the shore.
RAY: The area seems safe enough. There’s no signs of… wait a minute.
JEFF: There’s a group of more than a dozen men riding on camels closing in on the camp. They have spears and blades out at the ready. I don’t like the looks of this…
JEFF: The crew of the Commerce of Boston are completely outmatched, the group of Bedouins raids the camp, stealing almost everything. They even take the men’s clothes, leaving some of them shirtless.
RAY: Some of the sailors are making signs and pleading to at least leave them some clothes so the sun doesn’t scorch them. The bandits agree and leave some shirts behind before moving off.
JEFF: The men are dazed and scared. With no supplies, no food, and no water, they recognize the danger they’re in. Lost in a strange land, their only choice is to follow the coast in the hopes of finding rescue, a town, some fresh water, or anything that might keep them alive.
RAY: For hours the men walk. They spot a few locals but they quickly run off at the site of these strangers. Neither the group of men or the local people know who is a greater danger to who.
JEFF: Thirsty. Hungry. Tired. The men plod on until finally they spot some hope.
RAY: There’s a dog barking up there!
JEFF: If there’s a dog, there’s got to be some water somewhere nearby.
RAY: Good point. The group quickens their pace and heads up a hill toward that large rocky hill ahead.
JEFF: More hours pass, but no food or water can be found. The dog has run off, obviously he knew where to go, but he was too fast for the men to follow.
RAY: Some of the men are growing desperate. Some decided to split up. A small group wander off in another direction hoping to find something. Two others, Mr. Seaver and Mr. Ockington decide to head off in another direction. No plans are made to try and regroup… it’s turning into every man for himself.
JEFF: You can’t blame them. The heat from the sun is getting unbearable. If they spread out, maybe someone can find help and come back for the others. Still… things look bleak. Everyone is so thirsty. Three of the men are too weak to go on. They each lie down in the scorching sun. The others can’t help them. They understand to stop in this desert heat is to die. There’s a kind of silent understanding that though the three men who just collapsed in the sand are still breathing… they won’t be for long. The rest must carry on to try and find water or food.
RAY: The only shade I can see is up ahead in the shadow of some of those boulders. As the sun starts to dip lower in the sky there’s a little relief behind the rocks. The men head further up the small mountain in front of them.
RAY: As night falls, the group descends the other side hoping to find a stream or anything that might be of use… but there’s nothing. They need to be careful not to exert themselves more than they have to. If they sweat too much, dehydration will come that much faster.
JEFF: By morning, the men have found no fresh water. A few venture back up the hill to look for a spring or anything that might help. Things are looking bleak. Valentine Bagley, who was never much for religion, turns his gaze skyward. He sees a vision of his home back in Amesbury, Massachusetts. He vows to God that if he should survive this, he’ll build a monument to his Lord back home.
RAY: The remaining men walk for hours, heading further inland. Suddenly… up ahead they spot two women walking with goatskins full of water. The castaways plead and make signals begging for water. The women spare some for each of them. The women are motioning in the direction where the water came from.
JEFF: The men continue their trek slightly rejuvenated after having a drink of water, and soon come upon a man fishing by the shore. They make motions and hand signals of their thirst. The man figures out their plight and beckons them to follow.
JEFF: After walking a ways, the kind stranger guides the castaways to a valley.
RAY: Look up ahead! There are a bunch of birds down there.
JEFF: There must be water nearby!
RAY: Sure enough, there’s a spring near the birds. Each man in the group drinks his fill.
JEFF: Once rested, the group sets out again. But Mr. Williams’s strength is failing him. The water helped, but he can’t keep up. He sits himself down, too exhausted to go on. And the rest of his crew leaves him to the mercy of God.
RAY: In the coming days, the survivors continue to dwindle. They occasionally find water, sometimes a village that feeds them, but they keep moving toward a port in the hopes of rescue. Even if they survive the brutal environment and sun, there’s always the danger of being attacked or sold into slavery by the locals. For weeks they march until finally, there are only eight left alive when they reach the port and find a ship to get them to England, and then back to America.
JEFF: Among the survivors is young Valentine Bagley. By the time he reaches Boston, and then back home to Amesbury, Bagley finds himself grateful to be alive and back home. He wastes no time keeping his word to God.
JEFF: Bagley approaches the roadside of his property and begins to dig.
RAY: For days, Bagley toils in the dirt, digging away. When a neighbor asks if he’s digging for gold, the young man replies he’s looking for something much more precious—he’s digging for water.
JEFF: With the well establish.
JEFF: Bagley builds a trough and shack over the well so man and beast may drink freely. The well was dug near the road at the edge of the property so anyone passing by who needed a drink could help themselves. And that brings us back to today.
RAY: Captain Bagley died in 1839, but not before getting to know local poet John Greenleaf Whittier who immortalized Bagley’s story in his 1889 poem titled “The Captain’s Well.”
JEFF: That poem was one of Whittier’s last long poems. He died in 1892.
RAY: At the site of the Captain’s Well today the wooden shack is long gone. Now there’s a stone monument in the back with an embossed portrait of Captain Bagley. Across the top the words: “The Captain’s Well” is engraved. And on either side of the portrait are two verses from John Greenleaf Whittier’s poem.
JEFF: Starting from the left, It reads:
And if ever I reach my home again,
Where earth has springs and the sky has rain
I will dig a well for the passers-by.
And none shall suffer from thirst as I.
Now the lord be thanks, I am back again
Where earth has springs and the skies have rain.
And the well I promised by Oman’s sea.
I am digging for him in Amesbury.
RAY: Captain Valentine Bagley is buried in Bartlett Cemetery which is only a short walk from here.
JEFF: I love that this well has survived for centuries. When Valentine Bagley first dug this well, it must have taken a while for word to spread that it was for everyone. The reason behind the well probably got lost after the death of Bagley in 1839, but the legend came roaring back once it was immortalized in a poem by a local master. A story so powerful that a man who lived two centuries ago left a legacy and a roadside monument that will offer anyone who passes by the most important and valuable thing you could ever need: water.
RAY: And that brings us to After the Legend where we dig a little deeper into this week’s legend and sometimes veer off course.
JEFF: Maybe the only thing more important than water is our patreon patrons! But I don’t want to oversell it. If you enjoy our podcast twice each week, then please thank one of our patrons. They financially support everything we do. From our hosting and travel costs to our marketing and production. They help so much. If everyone kicked in just $3 bucks per month imagine how far we could take this community! Just $3 bucks. It’s like buying me and Ray a cup of coffee… that we’d have to split. And for that you get early ad free access to new episodes plus bonus episodes and content only for them. We’d appreciate it if you’d head over to patreon.com/newenglandlegends to sign up.
To see some pictures of the Captain’s Well in Amesbury, click on the link in our episode description, or go to our Web site and click on Episode 341.

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